A popular local and regional country music radio “Breakfast Flakes” co-host in my hometown of Billings, Montana recently made national news when he suggested in a blog on the 1017 Cat Country music station the Montana High School Association should consider segregation of Native American teams from the state basketball tournament.
“The crowd is so unruly and disrespectful of the facility that it may be time for the MHSA to proceed with an all Indian (sic) tourney,” he wrote. “They have more than enough teams to compete and can have their own divisional facilities. It’s not safe anymore to have this kind of environment. Schools and fans should not have to put up with this atmosphere.”
After concerns were expressed about the radio station condoning racism, the blog was taken down. The station answered queries online, assuring people action was underway.
Meanwhile, Montana-based radio veteran Charlie Mulluk (Inupiaq and Assiniboine/Gros Ventre) and other Natives called for a boycott of the station as word of the then deleted segregation blog post spread locally via captured screenshots. Mulluk also does a shift for the recently launched Indigenous Sounds.
He said, “When Paul is looked up to by so many people and he throws this segregationist aura out there, people react to it in one of three ways: with adversarial anger, with loyal agreement, or with indifference—which is maybe the worst of the trio.”
Having worked in the same building with Mushuben previous, Mulluk said it was “doubtful” Mushuben would ever issue an apology. “We’ve already heard Paul's real heart and mind. He knows that he can't backpedal from that. He’s all in, so we have to be as well,” he said.
As the matter simmered and people awaited the station’s response, Mushaben’s co-host Mark Wilson responded the next morning with another blog. Instead of an apology, he took issue at those who suggested they be boycotted or fired, likening the literal suggestion of segregation as “essentially a difference of opinion.” Wilson had even patronizingly concluded his follow-up post to those that took offense, “Well, we didn’t get fired. Please hate us some more tomorrow starting at 5 a.m. on 102.9… .”
That’s when, as they say, “shit hit the fan,” and the situation fully erupted. By the end of the day local and national papers like USA Today, The Washington Post, ICMN, and even Forbes had picked up on the story.
When told of Wilson’s response, Mulluk said, “If Mark has the audacity to try and make people feel sorry for them by portraying themselves as victims because they don't want to be held accountable for their actions, then they’re even pettier than I previously thought.”
Mushaben’s segregation comment had broad brushed the entire Native American community of Montana without even telling anyone which “unruly” incidents he was referring to or heard about. The MHSA addressed the issue, proclaiming they hadn’t heard of any recent issues of crowd problems regarding reservation-based teams.
When pressed by the local Billings Gazette paper on which teams he’d heard were disrespectful, Mushaben again wouldn’t say. He only reiterated, "It seems that the majority of the problems occur when Native Americans play.” The Gazette reported Mushaben compared “…his comments to the issue of gang violence in cities like Chicago, which he said ‘comes basically from the African American community.’”
Mushaben and Wilson were both suspended.
Despite his remarks being obviously racially motivated as pointedly proven by his referenced remarks to blacks in Chicago, Mushaben still has a fair amount of support across Montana. A protest/rally for him to get his job back was held in downtown Billings. Most of the signs referenced his right to “Free Speech.” Free speech, however, is a double-edged sword that can invite vigorous backlash and doesn’t apply when it’s done on the public webpage.
I theorize had Mushaben sincerely apologized the incident would’ve remained local and wouldn’t have blown up. As a country music fan, I grew up on their comedic-based morning show as they were actually quite witty, self-deprecating, and down to earth. They were even well known and popular in Indian country. However, as the Obama administration waned on and the Tea Party became popular, I noticed Mushaben growing more belligerent in mentions of politics.
Instead of cracked jokes about politicians of all persuasions, you could almost imagine Mushaben’s face getting red as his rhetoric against Obama and liberals steadily grew more hyper partisan. Liberal or not, a lot of people I know stopped listening to him after being put off by his incessant Obama complaints. In a piece for The American Conservative, Rod Dreher would refer to this phenomenon as “Fox Geezer Syndrome.” Dreher wrote because people continually drowned themselves in narrow-minded rightwing media, they’d start aggressively dropping politics into every casual conversation whether applicable or not. Simply: they were right and you were wrong before the discussion even began. If one didn’t goosestep to their tune they’d become aggressive. It renders “any reasonable discussion impossible, because all problems are reduced to a conflict between Good and Evil, and decided in advance.”
Mushaben supporters espouse he merely “Spoke the truth,” and people are “snowflakes” for taking offense. To those people, “the truth,” apparently, is we need to go back to Jim Crow-type Laws. What was previously a no-brainer in condemning segregation somehow became a dumbed down “liberal versus conservative” debate. Supporters inundated by Paul’s opinions everyday apparently saw him as some sort of infallible bastion of so-called conservative thought and thus became incapable of independent common sense of their own. Although I stopped listening to his program a year or so ago, I can’t imagine dude toned his rantings after Trump’s election win.
Racism against Indians in Montana isn’t even taboo to many, and outsiders are oft appalled by the open casualness of it. In fact, a couple of weeks before this incident blew up, a rural school came under fire by the ACLU when a faculty member allegedly told a group of Natives standing outside in the cold waiting for a basketball game, “We’re only letting the white people in,” before the door was closed.
Despite obvious comparisons that Mushaben’s suggestions were reminiscent of a Jim Crow pre-Civil Rights Act mentality, and despite his suggestion only Indians were capable of being unruly (as he then bafflingly compared them to gangs in Chicago), most supporters of Mushaben will outright insist they don’t condone racism. Had Mushaben said, “It may be time for the MHSA to proceed with an all-Negro tourney,” it might have opened eyes of ignorant locals to the implications of what was implied.
Still, some people function beyond ignorance.
Instead, in Billings, Montana on one of the busiest roads appropriately called Main Street, there’s a popular restaurant and bar with a sign, “We proudly support Mark and Paul.” In that same area there’s a brand new school called Medicine Crow Middle School, named after Crow Indian WWII hero and scholar Joe Medicine Crow. The area’s diversely talented high school boys’ basketball team is in the process of defending their state AA title. Although they’re not reservation schools, there are Natives in those classrooms, Native teachers, Native coaches, and of course basketball players. Of course.
Even though their ancestors have been on this land for thousands of years, every time those young students and their families have to go by that sign, they’re reminded that some people would prefer not to have them around—not even for a game of basketball. Such is “the truth” these days.
Adrian Jawort is a poet, freelance journalist, writer, and founder of Off the Pass Press LLC which aims to find “true beauty in literature off the beaten path.” Titles from Off the Pass Press include the fiction anthologies Off the Path Vol. I and Off The Path Vol. 2: An Anthology of 21st Century American Indian and Indigenous Writers which includes up and coming writers from North America, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia.